Sunday, 4 March 2012

Leveson Inquiry: The Bullying That Underlies Sleaze

Culture of fear created cruel creed of corruption

The Leveson Inquiry has laid bare the rotten heart of British journalism, but it is very much the corrupt bosses that have set the beat. As testimony presented by the NUJ made clear, a lack of union rights and freedom of conscience for individual journalists has enabled unscrupulous bosses to cultivate a culture of fear. This in turn has surely helped the likes of News International to nurture the scandalous sleaze the inquiry has uncovered

THERE is a saying that a journalist should never be bigger than the story, otherwise they intrude and become the story, but right now journalism – courtesy of a certain newspaper proprietor – is very much the story.

The Leveson Inquiry has laid bare the putrid innards of Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire, exposing the rotten practices that his titles have contributed to British journalism in a scandal that has reached into the heart of the Establishment.

Starting out with the hacking scandals that brought down The News of the World, it has cascaded into an Augean stable of foul play, an orgy of sleaze and corruption, bribery and deceit.

The tarnished ‘Sun King’, however, is only the shittiest end of a spectrum of abuse that has come to place journalism – and by extension journalists – in the dock. The flipside of the sleaze scandal is a bullying and abusive newsroom culture that crushes journalists into compliance, thereby creating the conditions for the scandalous abuses to take root and flourish.

Effectively, a culture of fear nurtured from the top has created the conditions that allowed the scandals revealed by Leveson to take root and grow. It’s a process that has been aided and abetted by the often fiercely-held anti-union stance of many newspaper businesses, that have held out against recognising the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and similar unions.

Michelle Stanistreet, the General Secretary of the NUJ, recently gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry, presenting testimony compiled from personal interviews with journalists that revealed a catalogue of bullying and abuse in the newspaper industry.

“The range of issues the journalists have raised with me include, but are not restricted to – endemic bullying, huge pressure to deliver stories, overwhelming commercial pressures which are allowed to dictate what is published, and the overweening power and control of editors over their journalists and of employers over their editors,” said Stanistreet.

A journalist should always protect their sources, and it was no different with the presentation of this evidence; it was presented anonymously because those who gave their testimony feared reprisals if they were identified. Indeed, those who came forward were guaranteed anonymity after Associated Newspapers – owners of the Daily Mail – failed in a court bid to prevent the evidence being brought to the inquiry at all.

“[The journalists who gave evidence] feel too scared and frightened to give evidence in a way which would allow them to be identified by their current or prospective media employers,” said Stanistreet. “Those who have experienced or witnessed bullying of a vicious and engrained nature have largely been too fearful to speak out in case they lost their job or were forced out. Those who have witnessed first-hand unethical behaviour or been pressured into working in a way that is unethical are frankly terrified about being identified.”

The NUJ is calling for a conscience clause for journalists that will allow them to cite the union’s Code of Conduct as a safeguard against being forced to use unethical methods. Members of Parliament involved in the NUJ Parliamentary Group have backed the call. The group has called for such a conscience clause to be included in their contracts to give them legs to stand on for principled journalism and to protect them against unscrupulous editors and newspaper proprietors.

“The NUJ’s evidence just shows how bad the atmosphere of bullying and intimidation has been in newsrooms,” said John McDonnell MP, Secretary of the NUJ Parliamentary Group. “The reign of terror by certain editors left journalists vulnerable to being forced to survive by employing dubious and, at times, illegal practices. This is why journalists need the protection of a conscience clause in their contract.”

Austin Mitchell MP, who chairs the group, added: “The bullying of journalists at some newspapers shows the need for them to be protected at work. The NUJ has been campaigning for a conscience clause for journalists for a number of years. A conscience clause and recognition for the NUJ are two ways to help tackle the dodgy practices that some in the media have engaged in.”

Of course, a contractual conscience clause may not mean much in a workplace where unions are not welcome. Perhaps, along with Code of Conduct and conscience clauses, it’s time for a call to arms for union recognition.





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